The emperor built the Badshai Mosque in 1673. A palace sized mosque built 100 years before the United States even became a country. This beautiful Mughil Empire space was a favorite of the Sikh and British empires too- they used it as a military compound. The mosque was fully restored in the 60’s and later was designated a UNESCO world heritage site- and rightly so. It is a majestic and stunning structure.
My niece just got married there, under one of the fresco covered ceilings. That was magical ceremony that holds the weight of history in its mughal covered art walls. But its also a massive place that holds up to 10,000 people for prayers.
And right across the street is the infamous Red Light District.
I was there at around noon during the day a few summers ago. The streets were narrow and busy, the shops were dirty and crowded, and this part of the city doesn’t feel as tourist friendly but it feels very historical. This was the part of the mughal empire that housed the actual empire- the princes, and kings and court. and….the courtesans.
It was the middle of the day when I visited, I have never been there at night when it earns it’s title the red light district.
We are here specifically here to meet the classical musicians of Pakistan. There are all these music shops where during the day help Pakistani’s tune their tubla or buy a new harmonium. At night a whole new place comes alive.
There was a small shop with a tubla and several drums in the front . We jump out and begin looking around. We were surrounded by guitars, tubla, and many traditional Pakistani instruments that I didn’t know the name of. There is an old man in the back sitting on the floor in the middle of the room playing the harmonium. He calls to me to come and sit and play next to him. So, I do. We play together. He speaks no english, and I spoke my barely there urdu. But we play in harmony taking turns between melody and harmony lines. Another musician sits down next to us with his tubla and begins another percussion line.
What makes this musical trio so intriguing is our backgrounds. Many in Pakistan don’t like to play with these musicians. They play for the
quote “dancers” at parties in the red light district. I don’t know first hand. I haven’t been here at 11pm when I’ve heard things are “lively”. But, I’ve been told It is a tradition held over from the mughal empire where music, poetry and dancers accompanied the prince in the Mughal Palace. They were happy ending performers- shall I call it. Tawaif’s, princely cortizans, were trained from a young age in classical music, dance, theater and poetry called Ghazals. They were trained in etiquette as well. When a protege was sophisticated enough in their art-dance, singing and poetry they became tawaifs performing for the nobility and were a treasured member of the society. By the 18th century in Bahot Shahi mosque, the tawaifs were considered an integral part of educated refined culture.
You know that upbringing sounds a lot like mine! I was raised in classical music, was a musical apprentice and studied at a high level starting from a young age. I went to music conservatory, continuing my study of classical music, composing, theatre, languages and poetry. Today in the US a thriving arts community is thought to be part of a sophisticated society.
The only thing missing is the happy ending part of the historical record. Opera singers don’t have suitors, noble patrons or a duty to perform in other ways. Thank god. But, you know, it really makes a lot of sense now why Rafay’s parents were worried about my reputation as a classically trained singer- they thought there were other duties to the job, like in the Mughal empire.
But you know, I really identify with these musicians. Training to play the tubla is complicated. It’s not a western drum with sticks, its a drum which you play with your hand, palm and fingers. There are hand positions and pitches. You are playing an intricate melody with your fingers and palms which takes years and years to master. Its like opera- you can’t just sing through an opera song and think it’s going to sound good. Same as the tubla- its an ancient art form which high level societies appreciate.
Its the same with Ghazal singers- These historical sufi spiritual songs based on Rumi poetry talk about unconditional spiritual love. Abida Perveen is known as the queen of sufi music in pakistan. She and Rahat Fateli Khan are the highest paid musicians in Pakistan. They are appreciated for their years of training and talent.
I really identify with these musicians. There is something otherworldly about getting lost in your artform, and perfecting it for years and years to the highest level. It is a spiritual experience to perform at this level. its the exact same thing I was trained to do as an opera singer.
Despite our different backgrounds, how and where we chose to express our music talents, we speak the identical musical language. It reminds me why I came to Pakistan in the first place. Music brings people together. It crosses boundaries, it makes connections and heals old wounds. This is the reason for the unity project.